Local

Cotton warehouse's collapse a stark reminder of a fading farm culture

A wall collapsed at the cotton warehouse on Southern Street at Dave Lyle Boulevard on Wednesday. The warehouse, which is located next to The Station Bar & Grill, opened around 1900 as a farmer's cooperative and became Williams Cotton Co. in 1920.
A wall collapsed at the cotton warehouse on Southern Street at Dave Lyle Boulevard on Wednesday. The warehouse, which is located next to The Station Bar & Grill, opened around 1900 as a farmer's cooperative and became Williams Cotton Co. in 1920.

Another piece of Rock Hill's farm town history came crashing down this week when an old cotton warehouse partially collapsed near downtown.

For 68-year-old Chick Williams, news of the accident left him feeling "like somebody grabbed something from me."

Williams sold the faded brick building to real estate appraiser Hugh Rock a few years ago, but he remains the foremost expert in town on its history. It passed through three generations of his family, starting when Rock Hill was just a railroad stop and cotton could be bought for nickels on the pound.

If it had happened 100 years ago, the collapse would have dealt a sizable blow to York County's economy.

'We all worked down there'

Williams recalls the warehouse opened around 1900 as a farmers' cooperative, a place where families brought produce to pool together and sell to the highest bidders. E. Les Williams, Chick's grandfather, took ownership in the 1920s and formed Williams Cotton Co.

The building sits on a hill above Dave Lyle Boulevard, off Oakland Avenue next to The Station Bar & Grill. "Cotton Warehouse" is still painted in white on the side, though the last few letters are now erased.

Farmers would bring fresh-picked bales and haggle with merchants over prices. The bales would then be taken to mills for weaving into cloth.

"There was a lot of cotton grown in York County back in those days," Chick Williams said. "Thousands of bales."

Much of the grunt work fell to the eight Williams children. They weighed bales, loaded bales onto trucks, drove bales to mills and unloaded bales again. Their father, Thomas Sr., kept close watch over the routine.

"Five o'clock in the morning, he was rousing us up out of bed," recalled Pook Williams, 73. "Mama always had breakfast ready for us. He had eight kids, five of us were boys. And we all worked down there at one time or another."

A slow decline

By the late 1960s, the family business was starting to die. Synthetic fiber became a cheaper option than cotton. To stay afloat, Chick Williams shifted to storing cotton for nearby mills.

That didn't last either, so Williams took a job at City Hall, where he handled property maintenance until his retirement in 2000.

As the years passed, the warehouse fell into disrepair. On Wednesday afternoon, heavy winds caused a wall to tumble over, strewing wreckage across Dave Lyle Boulevard. No one was hurt.

"It's sad to see something that's been a part of Rock Hill for so long go," said Rock's wife, Betsy. "Things will just have to evolve with what we can afford to do. We'll come up something."

A while after she spoke, a bulldozer pushed bricks and dusty planks of wood, clearing remnants of Rock Hill's past.

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